Buying In – BzzAgents and Volunteer Marketers

Just finished the book, “Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are” by Rob Walker who writes a column for the New York Times Magazine: “Consumed“.  Being a cheap consumer, I purchased the book second hand from the excellent local used book store (SHAVA) that we have here in St. Albert.  As a result, the book is a bit stale published in 2008; well before the financial melt down and the resulting impact on consumption.

Nevertheless, Walker is an engaging writer who walks the reader through the world of consumption, brands and fashion.  For example, who knew that the Hello Kitty mouth was too hard to express in a cute way – so it was cut from the final design in 1974 (pp. 15-16).

Hello Kitty - sans cute mouth

Hello Kitty – sans cute mouth

Or that the Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR) beer was purchased in 1985 by a Texas ‘beer-baron’ whose business plan was to slash costs and let the brand “decline profitably”. PBR used to be the blue-collar beer of the working man.  Now it is the markedted blue-collar beer made en masse.

While Hello Kitty and PBR are cute and taste okay (in that order), the interesting section in his book is on volunteer product evangelists or word of mouth marketers (p. 166).  These are volunteers who work for companies like BzzAgent who employ ‘volunteers’ to talk up products.  The volunteers button-hole friends, neighbours and unsuspecting would-be consumers with encouragements to buy sausages, perfume or read particular books.  They are encouraged to post positive reviews and write glowing praise of the particular product that is being promoted.

Some of the volunteers spend as much as 10 hours a week doing the promotion, writing reports and networking with other volunteers.  This is a part-time job working for a marketing company, promoting products – all done pro bono.  Walker provides an example of one word of mouth marketer:

Gabriella and the rest of the [BzzAgent] sausage agents are not paid flunkies trying to maniplate Main Street Americans; they are Main Street Americans…. … and she gets no remuneration.  She and her many fellow agents had essentially volunteered to create “buzz” about …. dozens of … products, from books to shoes to beer to perfume.  By 2006, BzzAgent claimed to have more than 125,000 volunteer agents in its network.” (p. 168)

While these volunteers earn points for prizes – many do not cash in the points.  So what motivates them?  One BzzAgent agent Ginger explained her willingness to volunteer for the following reasons:

  • It was a chance to get products before their release (and be an insider)
  • BzzAgent gives her something to talk and opinion about with other people
  • She believes she is helping people – by promoting a specific product.

To be fair BzzAgent’s code of conduct includes an expectation that:

BzzAgents always tell others they are part of a word-of-mouth program.  Be proud to be a BzzAgent. When Bzzing others, you must let them know that you’re involved with BzzAgent and tell them what you received as part of the campaign. If you genuinely like something (or even if you don’t), it’s your open, honest opinion that counts.

Code of conduct notwithstanding, somehow it feels like BzzAgents are on the wrong side of an invisible line.  Certainly they are not boiler-room fraudsters trying to hustle little old ladies out of their life savings – but still there is a part of me that is a bit queasy about the whole word-of-mouth marketing model.

Perhaps it is because I am a ‘free-lance’ word of mouth marketer.  I promote businesses that have given me good services or products and I do so because I believe that I am being helpful.   However, I do so on products and services of my own choosing and without having to report back to the business (or an intermediary such as BzzAgent) of my efforts to date.  As well, when in the course of a normal conversation, how exactly do you interject that you are now been sponsored by the ACME corporation?  I envision a conversation like:

  • Frank’s Friend: Boy it sure hot today!
  • Frank: Sure is… oh, by the way, this part of conversation is brought to you byBzzAgent and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer or PBR.
    • Boy this PBR is sure refreshing, goes down smooth and is cheap too.  The beer of hipsters and rappers, PBR is the only beer for me. 
  • Frank: We now return to our regular conversation already in progress.
  • Frank’s Friend: Huh?  Are you okay?  I think you need to get out of the sun and stop drinking so much of the PBR swill.

Myself, I am happy to stay on this side of that invisible line and continue to promote/malign in an objective manner good/bad products and services.  Nevertheless, I would love to hear your comments – perhaps over an ice-cold and refreshing PBR, the official beer of word of mouth marketers….